Fortnightly articles on Human Rights theory

The Freedom of Milton Friedman: Part 2.5

Hello, welcome back!

I took a small break from posting to focus on some other projects. I will be transitioning to a fortnightly release schedule hereon. This will increase the quality of my articles!

This week we continue our investigation into Milton Friedman’s conception of freedom by diving into Friedrich Hayek’s definition of ‘coercion’. Enjoy!

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1.0: Recap

To recap, Friedman argues that the best society maximises individual freedom, which is necessarily curtailed by government action. Therefore, a free society uses as little government coercion as possible.

Yet society must still organise its members to increase productivity. Friedman argues this is best done through voluntary exchange. Individuals spontaneously decide what to produce and then trade those things with others, generating net benefits as both individuals gain when they enter into a trade agreement.

This led us to two problems: the ‘Engagement Problem’ and the ‘Quality Action Problem’. We’ve solved both.

The Engagement Problem argued that individuals have no reason to trade with one another, since everyone was concerned only with maximising their freedom and trading made necessary government intervention – curtailing their freedoms. We solved this by changing Liberalism’s core goals from only freedom to freedom and material satisfaction. Consequently, individuals find a certain level of unfreedom acceptable so long as it guarantees a certain level of material welfare.

The Quality Action problem argued that Friedman’s account gave no distinction between inner freedoms. When the nicotine addict and the first-time cigarette buyer went to buy a smoke, Friedman’s theory claimed that they were both were both equally free. This was a rationally unintuitive outcome. We solved this by appealing to Hayek’s concept of a rationally choosing individual. A free individual is one that rationally chooses the actions that they take.

Therefore we now have a full, consistent picture of Friedman’s definition of freedom.

A free individual is one that lives in a society that has the least amount of state coercion necessary for voluntary exchange, where they act according to their own rational choices, and have secured a minimum level of material welfare.

2.0: Solved?

So, have we answered our question? What *is* freedom? Does Friedman give us the solution?

Well, not quite.

Let’s take another look at the first sentence of Friedman’s definition:

‘A free individual is one that lives in a society that has the least amount of state coercion necessary for voluntary exchange’.

There is a term here that has gone unexplained: ‘coercion’.

Friedman defines freedom as a lack of coercion, meaning that a free individual is one that exists in a state where coercion does not exist, or is limited.

This intuitively makes sense, until we dig a little deeper and ask – what is coercion?

All Friedman has done here is shift the explaining power of ‘freedom’ off of the term ‘freedom’ and onto the term ‘coercion’. When Friedman talks about ‘freedom’, he isn’t actually talking about freedom at all – what he actually means is a state of lacking coercion.

This means that, if we are to actually answer the question: What does Milton Friedman mean by Freedom? We must first ask: What does Milton Friedman mean by coercion?

2.1: Why Does This Matter?

I think it is worth here taking a quick aside to consider what is at stake here.

When Friedman talks about ‘freedom’, he actually just means ‘lacking coercion’. This we already knew.

But, this means that Friedman isn’t actually talking about ‘freedom’ at all. For Friedman, freedom is just something that comes after an individual lacks coercion. Destroying coercion is what Friedman actually cares about. Freedom, under Friedman’s sense of the word, is essentially contentless. It doesn’t hold any meaning.

The only thing that holds meaning for Friedman is lacking coercion. But then… Friedman never actually defines what coercion is. So, we have an entire political philosophy built on a word that has no definitional content.

The philosophical term for this problem is the ‘Fallacy of Composition’ (1). Freedom is assumed to mean lacking coercion, and lacking coercion is assumed to mean being free, when the two qualities are conceptually distinct from one another.

So, how do we solve this issue? We need to find a definition of coercion that fits Friedman’s theory. Where could we find such a definition?

Naturally for that, again, we have to turn to Friedman’s mentor, Friedrich Hayek.

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  1. Hansen, Hans, “Fallacies”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), forthcoming URL = <;.
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